Tuesday, September 22, 2009


How my thoughts - and my blog posts - do wander; they meander from September, to autumn art, to autumn poetry, to John Keats' Ode to Autumn, to Jane Campion's movie on Keats, to movies in general.

Do you remember when many American movie theatres were named Bijou? I do. I'm not sure why they were called that, but I was compelled to look up the meaning of the word. Bijou (plural, bijoux) means small, exquisitely wrought trinkets or jewels. In short, little treasures, little gems.

Here are my bijoux - my list of  little gems: the little-known and very much under-appreciated movies that I could watch over and over again.

The first, above, is a version of the ancient myth of "Tristan and Isolde", the famous star-crossed lovers, she an Irish princess and he a son of Cornwall and adopted son of its king. Tristan and Isolde meet and fall in love in Ireland, but her destiny is to marry King Marke of Cornwall (played sympathetically by Rufus Sewell).

I've long been a fan of James Franco, and he makes a soulful Tristan. Sophia Myles is luminous as Isolde. If you are a fan of all things Celtic, like me, just the sight of Isolde arriving for her wedding in all her finery aboard a Celtic carved wooden boat lit by torches will make you swoon. I absolutely cannot understand why this movie had such little success at the box office.

Ned Divine has won the Irish Lottery. How wonderful for him. But alas - Ned Devine has just died! So all the members of his little town of Tulaigh Mohr join together in a scheme to maintain the lie that Ned Devine is still alive, so that they can get and split his winnings. Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen) is the clever neighbor who gets the scheme going along with pal Michael O'Sullivan (David O'Kelly). Fionnula Flanagan is superb as Jackie's droll wife Annie. And who'd have thought the sight of a naked scrawny old Irishman riding a motorcycle would be so hilarious?

I loved Alison Elliott's quiet, understated performance as Percy Talbot, a young woman just released from prison for manslaughter, who decides to start a new life in the small town of Gilead, Maine. She goes to work for Hannah (Ellyn Burstyn), owner of the town's cafe, "The Spitfire Grill". Gruff on the outside but kind on the inside, Hannah soon accepts Percy, but can Percy find acceptance from the other residents of Gilead? (Is there balm in Gilead?)

Elliott is superb as Percy, a character who will stay with you a long, long time. I think she should have received an Academy Award for this role.

Shirley Valentine is a 42-year-old English housewife who is under appreciated by her boorish husband and grown children, and longs to find "the girl who used to be me". All that changes when she takes a trip to Greece with a friend. Upon arrival, the friend promptly ditches Shirley, leaving her to her own devices. Shirley does find herself in Greece; more than that I won't go into. (Okay, I do have to mention Shirley's reaction when she has sex with a Greek waiter. Funnee!)

The adorable Pauline Collins was nominated for her role as Shirley, though she didn't win. I understand that many women have Shirley Valentine parties to watch the film together. I especially loved the movie because it reminds me of my honeymoon in Greece. The sun-drenched scenes there contrast so strikingly with the greys of Shirley's drab life in England.

Marcy (Janeane Garofolo) works for a Massachusetts politician named McGlory who is inspired to search his Irish roots in order to give him a Kennedy-esque glamor. Rather than going himself, he sends Marcy, who sets off for Ireland, leaving her jerk of a boyfriend (Dennis Leary) behind.

Marcy meets an incredible cast of characters in the town of Ballinagra, which is all aflutter with its annual matchmaking festival. This film has really funny moments involving bumped heads, broken legs and wild car rides. It also gives lovely glimpses of Irish scenery and a truly moving scene in an Irish pub where Marcy is serenaded with lovely old Irish songs. Along the way she meets Sean, a very unlikely suitor. (David O'Hara, best known for his role as Stephen in "Braveheart.) How many matches will be made in Ballinagra this year, and will Marcy find her match or return to el jerko?

This is just the perfect little gem of an English movie. (Most of the movies in my list were made in England, Scotland or Ireland.) Hunky Clive Owen stars as a prisoner who is transferred to an experimental new minimum security prison called Edgewater. There, inmates are allowed to work at projects that really interest them. To his surprise, Owen discovers a love for gardening. This ultimately leads to him and his gardening pals (including David O'Kelly from "Waking Ned Devine") to create an exhibit at the most prestigious English gardening event, the Chelsea Garden Show. Helen Mirren, terrific as always, plays the quintessential English lady gardener. Lovely, just lovely.

I almost didn't include this film, because Julia Roberts is in it. However, it is one of her earlier films and she is not allowed to overwhelm it, thank god. The story revolves around the Mystic (Mystic Seaport, CT) pizza parlor, where Daisy (Roberts), Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Jojo (Lili Taylor) all work. Conchata Ferrell, a well-recognized character actress, is marvelous as Leona, the pizza shop owner.

"Mystic Pizza" tells of the friendship among the three girls and their romantic entanglements - Daisy with a spoiled rich boy, Kat with a married architect, and Jojo with a hardworking, down-to-earth fisherman. Roberts is dark and exotic enough to portray one of the town's Portagee (people of Portuguese descent). As her sister, Gish is less believable. However, Gish is the best actress here, and her story is the most poignant.

"Indian Summer" tells the story of a half dozen thirty somethings who get together for a reunion at Camp Tamakwa, the summer camp at which they all once stayed. I think the grace of this movie comes from its wonderful ensemble cast, just as good as that of the much more well known movie, "The Big Chill". It includes Alan Arkin, Elizabeth Perkins, Kevin Pollack, Diane Lane (always wonderful in anything), Bill Paxton and Kimberly Williams (now Kimberly Williams-Paisley).

Now adults with lots of adult problems, they re-kindle friendships while re-living their carefree days. Adding to the poignant "end of summer" sense of sadness is the news that the camp owner, Uncle Lou (Arkin), plans to close the resort and sell it.

"Amelie" is a most charmante film! Amelie (Audrey Tatou) is a shy, reserved, somewhat quirky young French lady (no wonder I like her). She works in a small cafe peopled by eccentric characters, is an inveterate daydreamer and appears destined to be alone forever.

Having had an affection-less childhood and not much of a social life, Amelie decides to help the people around her fix up their lives. To help her father, who dreams of travel, she sends his garden gnome traveling around the world. Through manipulation, she sets up two people in the restaurant, and becomes an avenging angel for an abused, beleaguered grocer's assistant. There's also a mystery, in which Amelie finds a scrapbook compiled by a young man who retrieves torn-up photos from automatic photo booths. Who is the mysterious man who appears in many of the photos, and what about the young man who lost the scrapbook - will he end up in Amelie's life?

Tatou has been compared to another Audrey - Audrey Hepburn - and I can see the comparison. Not only is she similar in appearance, she is also as fey and whimsical and pixie-like. And Amelie's Paris is the Paris we all dream of.

Not a lot happens in this movie, but what does happen stays with you forever. I have always been a fan of Ethan Hawke (though his greasy hair is always in need of a good washing). Playing Jesse, an American student, he meets lovely French girl Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train. He persuades her to get off at Vienna to spend a mere 14 hours together. They ride a bus, they walk, they drink wine, they talk, they talk some more, they fall in love. In a review by the late Gene Siskel, he marveled at how well Hawke conveys Jesse's feelings for Celine with no words, just facial expressions. I agree.

Their story is all the more painful and poignant because of the fact that they may never see each other again, for they will go their separate ways in the morning; she back to Paris, he back to America. Will they meet up again, as promised?

That answer ultimately came 9 years later, with the release of "Before Sunset" in 2004. That film is almost - almost - as good as "Before Sunrise". I was a bit upset by Hawke's surprisingly gaunt appearance as opposed to Delpy's still fresh face.

All 11-year-old Billy Elliot wants to do is dance! But his derisive father and older brother think it's sissy and wonder if he might be gay. He's not - "Just because I like to dance doesn't mean I'm a pouf!" No, he just wants to dance. Motherless Billy (Jamie Bell), the son of a coal miner in a bleak English town, is supposed to take boxing lessons at the local gym, but instead discovers and joins a girls dance class. How the winsome, undaunted Billy prevails in pursing his dream is a sweet, sweet story. Julie Walters is wonderful as his chain-smoking, crusty but compassionate ballet teacher who soon discovers his raw talent.

This is a charming and offbeat coming of age film. It is touching, joyful and exuberant. Hint - even though this is an English film, you might want to hit the subtitles button when you watch it. The accents are very broad, and were hard to understand even for me, and I watch a lot of British films.

This is a delightful movie! In it, Julie Walters - excellent as usual - plays Annie, who has lost her husband to leukemia. In a performance even better than Walters' is the great Helen Mirren, Annie's witty best pal Chris who has been with her through thick and thin. Trying to think of ideas to raise money to benefit the Yorkshire hospital in which Annie's husband died, they come up with the idea of a nude calendar and enlist their very prim and proper ladies' club members to make it a reality.

These typical middle-aged English housewives - after much reticence, shyness and giggling - come up with a tasteful calendar which is a huge success. (Naughty bits are hidden behind such items as sticky buns and flowering plants.) However, the notoriety drives a wedge between Chris and Annie. It is interesting to see what role jealousy can play in a seemingly indestructible relationship between two dear, dear friends, and to see if and how they can repair it. (PS - Ciaran Hinds ("Persuasion") is wonderful as Chris' husband.) The movie, by the way, is based on an actual event.

Frankie's dad is a real arse. But instead of telling the deaf Scottish lad the truth about his father, Frankie's mum explains away his absence by telling Frankie that Dad works on a ship that sails to ports all around the world. Her lie holds up as Frankie follows the ship's travels and she writes Frankie letters purporting to be from Dad, until they learn the ship will be docking at their portside city. In a panic, Frankie's mum decides to hire a stranger to pretend to be Frankie's dad.

Get ready, fake dad turns out to be none other than Gerard Butler!! (Sigh!) It's wonderful to see Butler as this rough, tough and taciturn man who slowly reveals his sensitive, tender side as he gets to know Frankie and his mum. Then, real dad comes back into the picture.

Again, if you are a fan of Celtic legends, you can't miss the magical movie, "The Secret of Roan Inish". Fiona is a young Irish girl trying to persuade her sorrowful grandparents to move back to the island of Roan Inish, their ancestral home. Via family stories, she learns that her people have been touched through the years by Celtic myth and magic. The tales mix several well-known Celtic legends, including that of the legendary shape-shifting selkie, and that of the little boy who was swept out to sea, forever lost.

Fiona knows that her own baby brother was carried out to sea in his cradle when they were moving off Roan Inish. However, she believes her brother is still alive and living on the island. In addition, she learns that one of her ancestors once captured a selkie - a seal woman - after she had slipped out of her seal skin. Is what happens next fantasy or reality? Does it really matter? This magical movie is based on Rosalie Frye's book "The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry."

Like "Calendar Girls", "The Full Monty" features nudity. But as the title implies, it's full frontal. A group of unemployed and desperate Sheffield steelworkers decides to become a Chippendale type dance group, though they don't have the bodies for it. You don't think this plot is the basis for a funny, heart-warming and uplifting movie? I beg to differ!

First of all, we aren't confronted with any actual nudity. And second, we really learn to like these disenfranchised men who only want to earn a little money and a little respect. As they prepare for their one-night striptease show, we learn that they're actually nice and sensitive men who care about each other. We come to care about them too. The comedy comes from the fact that they are so ill prepared and so under equipped (pun intended) for what they are about to attempt.

(PS - Like "Amelie" there is a subplot of a little traveling garden gnome.)

Sweet, charming, endearing, quirky, eccentric, lovely, heartwarming, magical, whimsical, witty, romantic, touching: that's how I like my movies. I like them funny too, as long as they're not the horrid gross out comedies that America seem to produce so often (e.g. "American Pie.") Do you have any bijoux you think I should check out?


Casey said...

Wow! I've seen so many of the movies you've mentioned here and love them all! Ned Devine and Matchmaker are two of my all-time faves! Too bad we don't live closer to each other~we could have great movie nights!

couragetocreatewriteandlove said...

Amelie is one of big favorites from your list. Never seen Ned Devine and calendar gilrs but i will look for them.
This is great idea of a post!
i may borrow this pretty soon

Shopgirl said...

Can You believe it is Fall....I love this post. I have seen and love The Spitfire Grill. Mystic Pizza was one Julia Roberts first movies, not a bad start. Indian Summer is close to my heart because of all the years I was a camp counslor. Calendar Girls is a real favorite. One of our ladies groups here in town did a calendar with cloths on after enjoying the movie...they made money.
The Secret of Roan Inish was really a lovely movie.
I have watched the Secret Life Of Bee's this past week and loved it. If you haven't seen it, you might give it a try.
Happy Fall, Mary

Autumn Leaves said...

I've not seen a single of these movies, Julie! Can you believe that? They all look wonderful though and now I want to! I love your reviews; they are wonderful!

gma said...

This is a great list Julie. I too love many of those movies. Particularly fond of Ned Devine.
LOL! Films set in Ireland are close to my heart.

Pat said...

well you've caught a few of my favorites.........among them and top of the list is Shirley oh how i love you Valentine. i love her ta-won-da style. i loved her in greece. she was my inspiration for traveling solo to greece when turning 50. i came home tho'. did she? what do you think?

Colleen - the AmAzINg Mrs. B said...

It's amazing how our taste in movies is sooo similar! There are a few I haven't seen, so this will be a good reference list for me :-) Now, I just have to go back and get all the titles :-) Thank you!

Kate Robertson said...


What a great list of movies, some I have seen and others are now on my to see list. Thanks,


Mary said...

I've seen 7 on the list Julie and loved them all. Now I must catch and see the others.

Thanks so much for all the work you put into making such a fabulous list of 'bijoux' films.